Now who is this Dr. Chase?
In the nineteenth-century manner, Chase earned his fame and fortune with equal parts of hard work and self-promotion.
Born in New York State in 1817, Alvin Chase came to Ann Arbor in 1856 to pursue a medical degree after a career as a traveling peddler of groceries and household drugs. While taking classes at the University of Michigan, he supported his family by selling home medical remedies and household recipes that he had picked up in his travels, starting with a single page of hints and cures.
Chase only audited classes at the U-M, since Latin was required to complete the program and had not been taught at the “log school” he’d attended in New York. He earned the title “doctor” in 1857 after spending sixteen weeks in Cincinnati at the Eclectic Medical Institute.
After returning to Ann Arbor, Chase practiced medicine and continued to expand his book of recipes. To the modern reader, many of his remedies seem very quaint. Besides cures for five kinds of “apparent death,” they included tinctures, teas, and ointments made from plants, tree bark, and–in one case–cooked toads. But at a time when doctors were still bleeding patients or poisoning them with mercury, his cures may have been as much help as anything the local doctor prescribed.
Chase himself admitted to no doubts about the efficacy of his remedies. His entertaining, first-person style is full of anecdotes about where and when he got the recipes and the wonderful luck people had using them.
Chase was fifty-one when he celebrated the grand opening of his printing building. The next year, afraid that sales of his book would soon decline, and also sure that he would die young, he sold the building and the businesses to Rice Beal. Sales did not decline. After Chase tried unsuccessfully to get back his book rights, he began an all-new recipe book. He died in 1885 (at age sixty-eight), just before completing the book, which was published posthumously as the “memorial edition.”
The nerve food apparently had both arsenic (1/132 gr.) and strychnine (1/120 gr.) per dosage and that is well below the dosage that will kill. At that time, arsenic was not uncommon in medications. It was taken deliberately by some Victorian ladies because it tended to whiten the skin and, I’ve read, make the hair shiny. Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915), the bacteriologist and Nobel Prize winner announced in 1909 that a arsenic compound he called Salvarsan was effective against syphilus. It had to be administered in very small doses over a long period of time but until Penicillin was discovered, it was the best treatment. Strychnine also has to be administered in very small and controlled dosages because it is very slow to be expelled from the body. It is prescribed mainly for dyspepsia, acid indigestion, and poisoning by chloroform or chloral. You can still buy Dr. Chase’s Nerve Food over the Internet although I don’t know if the ingredients are the same.
It seems as if Dr. Chase’s education and experience would not qualify him as a doctor but in the 19th century, medical doctors often learned their trade by working with another doctor as an apprentice. Doctors did more than diagnose diseases.They had to know the properties of many compounds because they often had to make up the prescription themselves. Dr. Chase’s fame really came from his printed recipe books which contained more than medications and he was very successful. They were used by merchants, grocers, saloon-keepers, physicians, druggists, tanners, shoe makers…and families generally. In 1864 he started his own building in Ann Arbor Michigan to hold his steam printing presses. He had the grand opening in 1868. His books of recipes were very big sellers and probably helped to shape public perception of good medical practices. I think that one anecdote on menstruation affected even my life. He wrote, “Allow me here to give a word of caution about taking cold at this period. It is very dangerous. I knew a young girl, who had not been instructed by her mother upon this subject, to be so afraid of being found with this show upon her apparel which she did not know the meaning of, that she went to a brook and washed herself and clothes — took cold, and immediately went insane.”
I suspect that this ‘knowlege’ handed down through my mother’s family was the reason that as a twelve-year-old, I was not allowed to go swimming in the creek with my cousins. Is this the reason that I’m not fond of swimming?